The first Norwegian in North Dakota left a lasting impact on the state

Nelson E. Nelson was North Dakota's first Norwegian immigrant. That was only the beginning of his impact on the state, Curt Eriksmoen details. Nelson also played a role in moving the capital to Bismarck and had a county named in his honor.

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FARGO — Of all the states in the United States, North Dakota, at 30.8%, has by far the highest percentage of Norwegians living in the state. Minnesota ranks second at 16.5%.

Today, there are six counties in the state where over 50% of the residents are of Norwegian lineage: Divide (64.7%), Steele (62.0%), Traill (59.0%), Griggs (58.9%), Nelson (54.8%), and Burke (53.1%). What makes this interesting is that Norwegians were one of the last European groups to immigrate to northern Dakota Territory. According to census records, there were only 10 Norwegian residents in 1870. That number shot up to 8,814 in 1880, and by 1900, 73,744 Norwegians were living in North Dakota.

Historian Axel Tolleson wrote that the first Norwegian to live in the Red River Valley, and likely northern Dakota Territory, was Daniel Olson. In 1861, Olson resided, “in the French half-breed settlement at old St. Joseph (Walhalla) near Pembina.”

Little is known about him as to when he arrived, when he left and what his occupation was. There was a Daniel Olson/Oleson who did some carpentry work at Fort Totten in the 1870s, but he was reportedly from Sweden.

The first Norwegian settler in northern Dakota Territory was Nelson E. Nelson, who was born near Christiana/Oslo in 1830. He was orphaned at an early age and raised by his maternal grandparents who brought him with him when they immigrated to the U.S. in 1849.


In 1877, Nelson Edward Nelson (left) was the first person to secure a homestead patent in northern Dakota.
Contributed / State Historical Society of North Dakota

Nelson lived in Wisconsin until he moved to Minnesota in 1857. He remained there until 1869, when he was appointed deputy collector of customs at Pembina in northeastern Dakota Territory.

According to Nelson’s granddaughter Jessie Lorenz, N. E. Nelson, his wife Martha, and their six children first lived in a barn about a mile from Pembina. To build their house, Nelson had the few remaining trees cut for lumber and had wood transported by steamboat. “Their household goods came in Red River carts and took three months to arrive from Henderson, Minnesota, to Pembina," Lorenz wrote. Fort Pembina, which was located about eight miles from the Nelson home, was the “social center," she noted.

One of the people that soon became a good friend of Nelson was Enos Stutsman, a prominent attorney in Dakota Territory. In the early spring of 1866, Stutsman had been appointed as a treasury agent to prevent smugglers from coming across the Canadian border. The offices for both Nelson and Stutsman were in the Custom’s House. They were joined in 1870, by a new deputy U.S. marshal who was assigned “to monitor a group of Irish rebels preparing to invade Canada.” His name was Judson LaMoure, and in just a few years, all three men would have counties named in their honor.

Judson LaMoure was the most geographically honored person in the history of North Dakota. LaMoure County and the towns of Jud, Judson, and LaMoure were all named in his honor.

Nelson was awarded the first official homestead in what ultimately became North Dakota. On December 19, 1870, the U.S. Land Office opened an office in Pembina and Nelson was the first person to file a homestead claim there. His claim of 160 acres was just south of Pembina.

In Yankton, Joseph Rolette had filed a homestead claim near Pembina in 1868 but was unable to prove up his claim, which took five years, because he died in 1871. Although there were other people at Pembina who filed their claims on December 19, Nelson was able to prove up his claim sooner because he was a Civil War veteran.

Nelson was named chairman of the 1872 Pembina County Convention and in June of that year, he called for the selection of candidates for the upcoming election. The candidates selected for the northern region of the county were Stutsman for the council/senate and LaMoure for the house.

Although Stutsman and LaMoure were defeated in the election, Stutsman was able to get the ballots for the winning candidates thrown out and he and LaMoure were awarded the seats in the territorial legislature. Having served four years in the Dakota Territorial council and two in the Territorial house, Stutsman had considerable political power. Also, he had been elected president of both legislative bodies.

LaMoure, Nelson and Stutsman counties were named after three prominent figures from the early days of what is now North Dakota.
Map by Troy Becker

In 1874, Nelson’s oldest daughter, Minnie, married LaMoure and the two men became even closer. LaMoure served four terms in the Dakota Territorial Legislature. When North Dakota became a state in 1889, he was elected to the North Dakota Senate and was continuously reelected until 1912. While in the senate, LaMoure became the most powerful member of the state legislature, largely because “he was the chief lieutenant of Alexander McKenzie, the Republican political boss of North Dakota.”


In 1882, LaMoure convinced Nelson to run for the house in the territorial legislature, and Nelson was elected. During the 1883 legislative session, Nelson “made a name for himself in his fight against corporate corruption and control of farmers.”

His most lasting impact, however was a bill that he pushed calling for the capital to be removed from Yankton to a more centralized location. A nine-man commission was established to choose the new site for the territorial capital and, on June 1, 1883, after 13 ballots, Bismarck was chosen.

Another bill passed in the 1883 legislative session was the creation of a new county by annexing territory from Foster, Grand Forks and Ramsey counties. Because Nelson “was so admired by his fellow legislators,” they named the new county in his honor.

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LaVerne Ringdahl pointed out interesting entries in the Nelson County History Book that could cause confusion. On page 7, it correctly states that Nelson County was named for Nelson E. Nelson, but on page 616, it states that the county was named after Nils Nelson, “the first permanent settler in Nelson County.” These were clearly two different people.

Nelson retired from statewide politics to concentrate on his farm, duties as deputy customs collector and civic affairs in the growing town of Pembina. After North Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889, the port of Pembina was made a separate district in North Dakota by an act of Congress on October 1, 1890. President Benjamin Harrison appointed Nelson as the port's first customs agent, a position he held until 1894.

In 1890, Nelson was elected mayor of Pembina and retained that position until 1895. In 1899, Nelson was once again elected mayor and remained in office until 1907. With William McKinley, a Republican, serving as President in 1899, Nelson was again named as the customs agent at Pembina. On September 25, 1907, Nelson retired as customs agent and was replaced by his grandson, Judson LaMoure, Jr.

Nelson later moved to San Diego to live with his second oldest daughter, Annie, and her husband, Alex Montague, who had worked for the San Diego Customs Office for over 40 years. Juletid/Christmas appears to have played a significant role in Nelson E. Nelson’s destiny. He was born on Christmas Day in 1830 and died on Christmas Eve in 1913, one day shy of his 83rd birthday.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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